Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

Getting Groceries in the Time of COVID-19

(H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
Supermarkets appreciated, corner stores remembered

The neighborhood grocery store, like the independent bookstore and the small pharmacist-owned drugstore, is now all but gone. Once an anchor in every neighborhood in which it existed, the neighborhood grocery has everywhere been replaced by the larger, more impersonal supermarket. Family-owned, never corporate, the neighborhood grocery store is sometimes, with a contemporary trace of mild contempt, known as a “Mom and Pop” store, this chiefly because husband and wife frequently worked together in them. In every way more efficient — offering a vastly wider range of goods at generally lower prices — the supermarket exhibits a supremacy over the smaller, simpler grocery store that is beyond argument. Yet for those of us who remember them, something nonetheless has been lost with the disappearance of the traditional grocery store.

Supermarkets existed in this country as early as 1915, with the founding of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, or the A&P, as it was known, which at its peak in the 1930s had more than 15,000 locations across the United States. There was an A&P on Devon Avenue, the shopping hub of the neighborhood where I grew up in Chicago in the 1940s and ’50s, but it had not yet replaced the traditional neighborhood grocery store. But, then, I am old enough to have a dim recollection of the scarcity of groceries during World War II, when butter and meat were strictly rationed; and, what interested me more at the time, so was bubble gum, which came back on the market only after the war.

For decades after the war, America was still dominated by the family-owned grocery store. These stores entailed personal relations. In them one knew by name — not by nametag — and by personality the people one was dealing with. In an age before ubiquitous credit cards, many of these stores offered credit to regular customers, running monthly tabs. Their owners joked with you, noted your absence from the shop, put you onto items currently on sale. I’m not sure if it qualified for “meaningful,” but one had a genuine relationship with one’s neighborhood grocer.

One of the distinctions among grocery stores was between those that had their own butcher shop and those that didn’t. Sometimes a butcher would take a concession within a grocery shop. And of course there were, and still are, many independent butcher shops. I used to go to an extraordinary one owned by a Mr. William Schmidt, who considered himself, quite rightly, a true artisan, and this before “artisanal” became among the most pretentious adjectives in the land. Mr. Schmidt did everything by hand, including making his own root beer. He would occasionally call to inform me that he had just acquired a 4-H cow and wondered if I wanted him to set aside any portions for me. He felt that his was a disappearing craft. When I once asked him about all the butchers in the supermarkets, he replied: “They’re not butchers. They’re mechanics” — a reference, this, I gather, to their using power saws to cut meat. I’ve not before nor since heard the word “butcher” used as a proud honorific.

Since Mr. Schmidt’s long-ago retirement, I have taken much of my carnivorous custom to the butcher shop called the “Paulina Market” — an old-fashioned shop, with what must be 30 or so yards of meat on display in glass cases, and where just about every sort of animal flesh is on sale, with the exception of elephant roast and ground chihuahua. The Paulina Market is not, distinctly not, where you would want to take a vegan girlfriend on a first date. The shop’s old-fashioned hot dogs are especially good, and when I eat one I do my best to forget H. L. Mencken’s description of hot dogs as being composed of “the sweepings of abattoirs.”

A certain playfulness, a jokiness even, between employees and customers prevailed during the old grocery-store era, at least among those where I shopped. At a nearby grocery store called “Wulf’s,” I one day noticed Mrs. Wulf, in the produce section, juggling limes, and out of emulative envy promptly taught myself to juggle. Mr. Wulf, tall and taciturn, was not a man with whom one joked. Unlike the crowd at Bernsten’s, another neighborhood grocery store, where, I recall, one morning after the Chicago Cubs lost a decisive playoff game owing to the crucial error of Leon Durham, the team’s first baseman, the son of the owner, while checking me out, asked if I had heard about Durham’s attempted suicide. When I said I hadn’t, he replied: “Oh, yes, he stepped out in front of a bus, but it went right through his legs.” At the same store, whenever I ordered, as I not infrequently did, two large boneless chicken breasts, one of the two butchers there invariably called out, “Two Dolly Partons.” In the fall, on Monday mornings, when I usually shopped, I used to discuss the previous day’s Chicago Bears game with these two gents.

Supermarkets, possibly sensing the role grocery stores once played, have attempted to make themselves friendlier. A supermarket chain called “Mariano’s,” a branch of Kroger operating in Illinois and Wisconsin, will cook the meat or fish you buy from them. The staff at Trader Joe’s supermarket go about their work with an unrelenting exuberance and slightly suspect friendliness. Does one, do you suppose, have to go to smile school to work there? A Jewel-Osco store, one of a chain operating throughout Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana, makes an effort to stock specialty foods for the neighborhoods out of which it operates, so that, near an ultra-orthodox-Jewish neighborhood on the far North Side of Chicago, it stocks a large section of kosher foods. The Jewel, in which I often shop in Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago, has made a special effort to hire people with serious hearing problems as baggers and shelf-stockers.

Social class, I long ago discovered, enters into the placement and quality of supermarket grocery shopping. Several decades ago I lived in a lower-middle-class suburb outside Chicago called Berwyn, which had a Jewel supermarket that seemed adequate, until I happened one day to shop in the same chain’s store in the adjoining upper-middle-class suburb of Riverside, where I discovered the produce to be of an obviously better quality. Then there is the sad phenomenon of “food deserts,” or neighborhoods, many of them African American, so ridden by crime and hopeless poverty that supermarkets and old-fashioned neighborhood grocers are reluctant to set up shop in them.

I currently live across the street from Whole Foods — a chain that, as is fairly well known, has its own special character, even Weltanschauung. Some unidentified wit once said that if one wished to begin a Tea Party of the Left, all one would need do is troll the parking lot at any Whole Foods. One could also hold a convention of food nutters at nearly any hour at Whole Foods. I have myself been looking for some while for a chance to use the simile “rarer than an inorganic pear at Whole Foods.” Known also as “Whole Paycheck,” the store can sometimes shock with its expensiveness.

The staff at Whole Foods seems rather more genial than the store’s clientele. Occasionally I see one or another of them outside the store smoking; once I saw one eating what I took to be a Big Mac and restrained myself from congratulating him for his heretical gastronomic habits. Many among the staff are young, working at Whole Foods as a stopgap job. The clientele at Whole Foods seems a touch or two less mannerly than the people one runs into in other supermarkets. Perhaps they are too intent on finding the perfect arugula, or searching out a persimmon that will remove wrinkles or a raw manuka honey that will extend life. When I go there, shoppers in the aisles seem to say “Excuse me” or “Pardon me” less than those elsewhere, nor do they seem to recognize one’s own excuse-me’s or pardon-me’s. But, then, because of its costliness, I tend to treat my local Whole Foods rather like a Seven-Eleven, stopping in to pick up the odd item or two out of convenience but doing my main shopping elsewhere.

While the contemporary supermarket cannot hope to replace the old neighborhood grocery store for friendliness, one cannot but admire what it achieves, and marvel at its management. Some years ago Philip Roth, in rather a boringly standard criticism of George W. Bush, said that he wasn’t smart enough to run a hardware store, let alone a country. I recall thinking at the time what an inept simile that was. Running a hardware store calls for both detailed knowledge and vast competence. Ask a clerk in a hardware store for a rope one wants to use to hang one’s wife, and while escorting you to the rope section of the store, he is likely to ask you how much she weighs.

Running a supermarket takes a wider competence and even greater managerial skills. Think on it. Dealing with that wide variety of foods, cleaning products, items of personal hygiene, plants, booze, and whatall else. Hiring and running a staff of a hundred or more people, upon whom one calls for both efficiency and courtesy while able to pay most of them not much above the minimum wage. And keeping the show running, as an increasing number of big-city supermarkets do, 24/7 (unlike the Hasidic detective, who stays on the case only 24/6). Does it seem wrong to say that being responsible for running a supermarket calls for greater skills and more intricate knowledge than running a think tank or a university? Not to me it doesn’t.

The value of having supermarkets has of course been revealed in excelsis during the coronavirus crisis. Without the flow of food and other products that supermarkets have continued to supply us, the country would truly be out of business. The supermarkets, their suppliers, their workers, have made it possible for the rest of us to keep going. When the pantheon of heroes during the current crisis is constructed, they, alongside first responders, physicians, and nurses, must have a prominent place.

This article appears as “Getting the Groceries” in the May 4, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.

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